Florida school choice bill ready for final vote in House

Travis Pillow

School choice legislation that would expand eligibility for the country’s largest tax credit scholarship program and create new personal learning accounts for special needs students is ready for a final vote in the Florida House.

Lawmakers on Wednesday removed a $30 million increase on the caps that limit the growth of the tax-credit scholarship program, though the state’s current law would still allow the program to grow by as much as 25 percent a year.

erik fresen

Rep. Erik Fresen

The change did little to tamp opposition among House Democrats.

They proposed a series of contentious changes during nearly two hours of floor discussion on Wednesday, including a proposed requirement that schools participating in the tax credit scholarship program administer state’s standardized tests. The Democrats’ amendments were defeated, largely along party lines.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, broke with his fellow Republicans to vote in favor of the testing requirement, which also would have required schools with scholarship students to participate in the state’s A-F grading system for schools.  His father, Don Gaetz, is the Senate President, and has called for requiring state assessments for scholarship students, an idea that remains controversial among some school choice supporters.

The House voted down other Democratic proposals, which among other things would have required private schools with scholarship students to hire state-certified teachers, mandated that they teach the state’s education standards and restricted the way scholarship funding organizations that administer the program can use their revenue. Step Up for Students, which co-hosts this blog, is a scholarship funding organization.

Requiring state standards in private schools “would ensure private schools are going to be accepting public money, that they do something similar to the public schools and reach the same standards that we have for those schools,” said Rep. Richard Stark, D-Weston.

Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, said parents chose private schools for a host of reasons, including the kind of learning environment they offer.

“If we are providing an option for those families, then why, I ask you, would we want to make it look just like the school that didn’t work for their child?” she asked.

While the full House could approve the school choice bill as early as Friday, the Senate has so far taken a different approach to school choice legislation after withdrawing its original tax credit scholarship bill from consideration earlier in the session.

Florida is one of seven states where lawmakers this year have considered creating education savings accounts for special-needs students, and competing proposals have gained traction in both chambers.

Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, the sponsor of the House bill, noted the state already offers McKay Scholarships that allow special needs students to attend private schools. He said the bill is intended to help students whose conditions are so severe that they may not benefit from attending school for a whole day. Parents could use the accounts to pay for other education-related services, including speech therapy.

“It allows incredibly more flexibility to the parents’ use for specific services that they know their child needs,” he said.

Additional coverage: Post on PoliticsCentral Florida Political Pulse, Associated Press, Tampa Bay Times.

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Parent and Teacher April 9, 2014 - 7:46 pm

Is there ANY circumstance where the sponsors of that bill and/or the SUFS staff would support the requirement that voucher students take the same tests as students at a traditional public school? Please let us all know. Simple yes or no answer will suffice.

Jim Jackson April 9, 2014 - 11:24 pm


Chanae Jackson-Baker April 9, 2014 - 9:23 pm

I was present during session today. The good news is that all 8 amendments that would negatively impact the bill were shot down. However, I was a bit disturbed by some of the House Representatives dialogue… House Rep Cynthia Stafford of Opa Locka referred to parents right to choice as a “Voucher Scam” and said that it was diverting funds from public education. However, she did acknowledge that the funds to fund the tax credit scholarship do not come from the same source as traditional public education dollars and that the money should follow the child. House Rep Karen Castor Dentel of Maitland said that we need to compare apples to apples and have children given the same state test although the curriculum is not apples to apples. She also said that parents that are pleased with their children’s education and progress “is not good enough” for accountability. I truly was taken aback and did not understand this statement. In my opinion, t
he inference is that accountability to parents of higher socioeconomic status makes sense because having money seems to make them smarter; but parents of lower socioeconomic status is deplorable because we are somehow incapable of knowing what’s best for our children.

Jim Jackson April 9, 2014 - 11:23 pm

Chanae: I understand you were hospitalized recently. I saw your testimony several times in front of the committee chaired by Fresen several weeks ago. I hope you are doing better.

Parent and Teacher April 9, 2014 - 9:32 pm

Again, is there ANY circumstance where voucher supporters would agree to testing voucher students using the same state tests that all public students take? Why should voucher students be deprived of the new curriculum and accompanying tests that ensure a student is college or career ready? It seems that voucher supporters are guilty of the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Chanae Jackson-Baker April 9, 2014 - 9:58 pm

As a voucher supporter with children that attend school under the vouchers. The accountability that you refer to is the FCAT. Before leaving public school, my two daughters did an assessment that was a practice FCAT. They scored all 4’s and 5’s; yet, they had to play catch up in core subjects that included reading, math, grammar. My oldest son got all 4’s and 5’s on the FCAT; yet, he has to do additional grammar and take two classes over the summer in order to be caught up to the students that will be in his class next year. My other son (yes, the one with all the disabilities) received FCAT scores that were so low, they were unscorable. Yet, I was informed that he would be administratively passed along because he had an IEP that was set in place. So I am unsure how voucher supporters or guilty of the soft bigotry of low expectations. FL DOE website has all of the facts related to school choice. The facts show that these children have made strong academic gains. So exactly what is the issue?

Parent and Teacher April 9, 2014 - 10:19 pm

Mrs. Baker, It sounds to me like your children would do fine with the new state assessments. Your child with the IEP would be taken care of as well. I wonder why SUFS would be so against them, don’t you?

After all, the new assessments are supposed to be for everyone (hence the word “Common” in “Common Core”). Why should your children be exempted from this excellent academic curriculum that, in the opinion of those promoting it, will make your children competitive with others around the world. We cannot tell that with the tests your children take. Don’t you want your children to be competitive with the Germans, Chinese, Indians and Koreans?

In addition voucher children ought to take tests that determine teacher pay, neighborhood property values, teacher retention and student courses for the upcoming year. And, quite frankly, private schools offering to take voucher kids ought to be compared to all others since SUFS was created by the state and it is funded through a state act. The state ought to easily be able to find out if its private schools are functioning properly. Finally, for the 164 private schools that teach voucher students the topic of Creationism, we ought to know if those students are learning real, 21st century science.

Chanae Jackson-Baker April 10, 2014 - 7:55 am

Yet again… I have pointed out that my children now takes a national norm referenced standardized test. Yet that was ignored. My children attend schools that have multiple accreditations including SACS. Yet, that is ignored. I pointed out that the FL DOE website has the statistics posted that validate the assertions that children under voucher programs are making strong and Notable academic gains.Yet, that was also ignored. My children are more important to me then “just fine”…so, NO, public school is not for them. It is my duty and responsibility to ensure that they excel and not do just fine. Every point you have made (referencing property taxes, etc) to why they should remain in public school are exactly the reasons why mine should not be there. These factors are the reasons why public education is now about giving the image that they are performing instead of actually working to make real gains. Additionally, you keep referencing what education under common core should be. I am not concerned with coulda shoulda woulda. I am concerned with what is. Common Core is a curriculum that was developed and never tested. There are a plethora of ideas that are great in theory but crash and burn when implemented. Or have we forgotten that this was the case with FCAT? Since I started pulling my children from Public school has had three years to show me how education is improving and how my children will excel. They have failed to do so. As the mother that is a former school board employee, a former PTA member, a former Student Advisory Council member and a taxpayer; I have decided to utilize dollars to choose better educational options for my children.

Jim Jackson April 9, 2014 - 11:31 pm

Thanks for the snag on the tax forms. Mind blowing numbers for sure.

Parent and Teacher April 10, 2014 - 3:46 pm

Thank you again, Mrs. Baker.

I will take your response as a “no” that there is no circumstance where you’d support private schools giving the state tests, especially those aligned with the “untested” (to use your word, not mine) Common Core.

You may want to direct your concern about Common Core to Step Up For Students. According to Mr. Tuthill, SUFS is aiding over 140 private schools in setting up the Common Core curriculum. As you know, SUFS administers the voucher program. You may want to let them know how concerned you are. You may see Mr. Tuthill’s own discussion of Common Core at this link.


If SUFS is helping set up the Common Core curriculum in private schools, you can bet that the state exam is coming at some point.

I’m glad you’re satisfied with the education your children are receiving. As a parent myself, it is of utmost concern. However, my children must take state tests to prove they’re growing academically. I don’t see why my children should have to take such high stakes exams if, in my opinion, my children are doing well. My point is, those who refuse to support private school voucher recipients taking state exams seem to think it’s okay to rely on the parent’s satisfaction alone. The state is discriminating against me because, although I am satisfied with the progress of my children, the state won’t take my word for it.

Patrick R. Gibbons
Patrick R. Gibbons April 11, 2014 - 9:04 am

Hi Parent and Teacher,

There is a big difference in encouraging schools to voluntarily take the test and mandating all students take the test regardless of parent/school wishes, let alone the logistics. And as you may be aware, if you are taking a national norm-referenced test and the test results are being sent to the parents (and reported to the state) aren’t you showing the child is learning and making progress? One single test isn’t’ necessary to do that.

Parent and Teacher April 11, 2014 - 9:10 am

I will take your response to my question as a “no”. There are no circumstances where Step Up For Students will support the suggestion that voucher students take the new state exam tied to the curriculum that at least some SUFS supports.

Patrick R. Gibbons
Patrick R. Gibbons April 11, 2014 - 9:51 am

Hi Parent and Teacher,

I apologize for not being clear enough. There are schools taking the FCAT and SUFS provides free professional/curriculum development along state standards to schools which voluntarily enroll in the program.

Again, there is a BIG difference between forcing the test upon the schools and students (the majority of private schools have very few scholarship students and the logistics of having scholarship students take the FCAT would be a nightmare) and having schools voluntarily choose the state test.

If you are concerned about comparing the results between students in different education sectors, the state could also return to a national norm referenced test like the Stanford 10. That allowed direct comparison but the state dropped that test a few years ago. Having everyone take the same test or even use the same exact standard isn’t necessary (also defeats the purpose of having a choice).

Parent and Teacher April 11, 2014 - 10:32 am

The vast majority do not have a choice between private and public schools. I do not. I neither qualify for a state voucher nor could I pay for a private school. Repeating it as an excuse for not requiring all voucher students to take the new test is disingenuous.

Chanae Jackson-Baker April 24, 2014 - 9:17 pm

Parent and Teacher,

It is okay to rely on parent’s satisfaction alone. This accountability seems to be just fine for parents of higher socioeconomic status, so why is it not okay for me as a parent with lower economic status. You have blatantly disregarded that three of my four children actually scored above average (4s and 5s) on the FCAT and my other son’s FCAT score was unscorable. Yet, when my three students that excelled on the FCAT were tested using the National norm referenced test they were deemed to be behind and had to play catch up. My son that who had an unscorable FCAT was still passed along because he has an IEP in place. So I would like you to answer how is this beneficial to anyone. Your hang up (like many) is on the schools not taking the FCAT. My question is why would I want my child(ren) to be tested utilizing an accountability system that is broken? My story is the prime example of how parent accountability goes much further than a high stakes test. It would be simple for me to be happy with my children’s FCAT scores because they are so high and are “proof” that they are performing. However, as a mom, despite their test scores, I was able to determine that they were not achieving their full potential in public school. In response, I CHOSE to remove them and place them in a more challenging learning environment.

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